Living or Livid with Nature?

Black bear chew marks
Black bear chews the shed (again)

We weren’t always doggedly efficient extirpators—of insects for eating crops and stinging, of moles for spoiling perfect lawns, of predators for preying on livestock, and so on and on …

Not so long ago, humans tolerated annoying wildlife with a shrug. Further back, I expect we thought ourselves part of nature instead of dominating it. It has taken the toll of recent and projected extinctions to value biodiversity, and let’s be honest, more out of self-interest than awe. We want all kinds of bees to pollinate our crops and deer to satisfy our hunter instinct. It takes a leap to appreciate mosquitoes, although they are important in the diet of birds and amphibians we love. As they say, no gain without pain.

Do you remember my post on June 4 about an encounter with a bear ‘treed’ by hounds? I don’t condemn hunting per se (only the methods), but I took the victim’s point of view that day.

It’s likely to be the individual caught on internet video when it later stepped on our front deck. The camera died soon afterwards. I suspected flat batteries or power outage from a storm. But next time I came home I found the visitor had ripped out the cable connecting our satellite dish. This was the third such ‘attack’.

Rural living introduces us to more wildlife conflict. I have stories of woodrats chewing plastic water pipes, deer treating flower borders as salad bars, mice nesting behind the car radio, and woodpeckers hammering roof flashing. None were one-off. You have your own stories, and funnier when they happen to others!

Bears are like naughty boys. Not satisfied with disconnecting us from the digital world, our visitor overturned flowerpots, tore a game camera off a tree, and left a calling card on the shed. We might understand getting its own back after an ordeal with dogs but this time it alienated an ally. I consoled myself it didn’t break into the house, like bears raiding a fridge. There’s no ice cream to tempt in our home, but I worry about chocolate!

News of a rascal in the district tests even the poise of an ardent nature lover, much less others. Bruins on our mountain have broken into chicken coops, knocked over beehives and trashed apple trees. “Too many ‘barrs’ around here,” folk say in West Virginia, happy if bear hunters sweep across their land.

Policies that try to reverse the retreating tide of wildlife populations generate grumbling about government and conservationists bulldozing personal interests and rights. There is no better example than the row over gray wolves after the withdrawal of federal protection. It’s easy to take the side of charismatic creatures when viewed on a screen, but building a more tolerant relationship with nature starts at the porch door, and bears.

Next Post: Great-crested Flycatcher

Bear Facts About Hunting

Black bear in Pocahontas County, West Virginia
A ‘treed’ Black Bear

Deer came in the night to crunch the corn, a wild turkey arrived at breakfast to nibble wheat berries, and a raucous family of ravens cleared the rest. I rarely wait long for something interesting to turn up in a stone’s throw from my front step.

But I hadn’t heard baying for a long time and felt irritated at the breach of peace on Memorial weekend. I grabbed my camera and binoculars, leaving coffee to go cold on the deck, and ran into the trackless forest strewn with boulders under Middle Mountain that lately wore a green mantle.

After nearly a mile of making a beeline I slowed to approach the hullabaloo. All the while I thought about the mama bear and cubs caught in my game camera a couple of nights earlier. Did they hang around?  If so, had they become quarry for West Virginia hunters?

Bear hunting hounds
Bear hounds go crazy having ‘treed’ the bear

Closing in, I spotted a pack of nine hounds jumping and howling around the base of a tall maple tree, their eyes fixed on the canopy. Each dog weighing about 40-50 pounds was colored a mixture of brown, black or white. Most too intent on their goal, a chestnut one with its tail wagging attached itself to me, jumping up to lick with a lolling tongue. It might have made a fine pet, though none of mine ever had ribs I could count when its chest expanded with deep breaths. The others were equally lean. Each had three collars, one strapping a small black box with a 9” aerial.

I leaned back to gaze fifty feet up to the first fork where a black form moved. I tried to shoo the dogs but nothing distracted their obsession. I even pushed them aside to stand with my back to the bole but they treated me as part of the tree, landing muddy paws all over me. I never saw a more frenetic scene in the woods, and clambered up a bank, sapling by sapling, to avoid the maddening noise I feared could aggravate my tinnitus. 

At the top I had a clear view of the bear. It looked down, often shifting its position. I decided to wait until the hunters arrived, guided there by sound and radio transmitters. This is not the hunting season but I’ve heard that armed men are occasionally tempted to shoot. The nearest dwelling is 2-3 miles away (except ours), and only a couple of wildlife law enforcers in a vast county.

An hour later, two men arrived carrying orange dog leashes and a heavy bag. No firearms. They startled me as I didn’t hear movement through the understory. If I surprised them, it didn’t show when they found me petting the dog and watching the melee below. I wonder if they assumed I came out of curiosity to see a ‘treed’ bear and approved of hunting with dogs. Only half true. The second half I kept to myself to avoid confrontation, as in politics when I know neither I nor my opponent will concede, instead reserving expression for the ballot box or in writing to try to influence policy. Even more important when meeting rifles and crossbows in the woods. A number of states have banned hunting with dogs but the tradition persists as a fiercely defended right in parts of Appalachia.

We watched the bear for several minutes, photographing it from different angles. It had a long pale nose and glossy black coat; at around 300 pounds one of the largest I’ve seen in those woods. I thought it looked more handsome and noble than any of us standing there on two legs or four.

Black bear descending maple tree

The men rounded up the dogs, tying them to branches. One tapped the base of the tree with a heavy branch and when broken he bashed vigorously with a rock. I asked the other what he was doing.

“It’ll bring the ‘baar’ down. Dunno why but perhaps vibrations make ‘im think the tree’s unsafe.”

After several minutes the bear slid under the bough. The man moved away. I pointed my camera half way down the long trunk, my finger ready on the trigger.

I’ve seen bears clamber down in panic when I stumble on one feeding in the canopy. It reminds me of a fireman sliding on a pole to an emergency. I only had time for two clicks before he was on the ground, galloping along the stream bed.

Relieved to see him get away safely, I asked the men how far they had to walk the dogs back. I knew they must have driven to the nearest point in a truck with a kennel in the bed, an odd vehicle on first encountering one.

“Not yet. Dogs need more training.’

That was the hardest moment to suppress an objection. The poor creature was already terrified. It had run ahead of dogs without inflicting a terrible injury on any of them, easily done by one swipe. Each dog released in turn dashed after the bear.

The woods around me fell silent again. My return journey started by losing grip on a branch to slide on my buns down the bank muddied by recent rain until stopping in the stream bed. I felt angry for being clumsy and frustrated at powerless to protect the old man of the woods. I wished him well.

Half-an hour later at the house I heard distant baying again.

Next post: Common Tern

Pug Marks in the Snow and Mind

Winter still grips the Allegheny Mountains. Rain alternates with snow as the days creep toward the official opening of spring. Snowshoe Mountain has accumulated 159” of snow this winter, which is far below the record although we are not yet finished with winter.

Cabin fever feels most febrile when clouds hang low with drizzle, and I wait for bright sunny days with fresh snow to go outside and strap on snowshoes for a hike in the forest and open spaces called ‘balds.’ I spend a couple of happy hours looking at fresh tracks that tell stories about the night-life I rarely see.

There are no tracks of red, gray or fox squirrels because the animals are asleep in leafy dens. Chipmunks are curled up in hollow logs and flying squirrels are nested in my bird boxes. Mother bears stay in their dens for suckling tiny cubs that only weighed a pound at birth, although a juvenile will occasionally wander out to stretch and look for a snack. The day I wrote this log in my nature journal there were no bear tracks.

But there were tiny prints from mice scampering over the snow for a few feet before they dove under. Of all the animals here, I would expect the smallest to hibernate or go into that borderline state of torpor; they must keep their metabolic fires burning to avoid hypothermia. Foxes and bobcats are grateful the rodents are awake, and a hole dug through the snow down to the grass was probably where one pounced on an unseen victim after hearing a murine ultrasonic courtship call. Sex behaviour is often unsafe.

I haven’t seen opossums or rabbits in daylight for months, but their tracks show they were abroad last night. The distance between prints shows they were sauntering across open spaces with a confidence they lack in daytime when they hurry on their way and are ready to dash for cover. One set of rabbit tracks led across an old field where they suddenly vanished, as if the animal had been snatched into the air, but there were no signs of a predator or an Olympic jump. The mystery still dangles.

Our resident striped skunk wasn’t out last night, nor was the coyote pack that patrols the area. As I walked round in a great circle I came upon prints two feet long made by a lumbering biped. Yikes, Bigfoot is here! If only I had brought children along to kid them about the imprint of snowshoes.

The footprints I dream of finding (maybe die to find) look like those of a coyote with four toe pads, but larger and wider and without protruding claws. A panther.

Many local people believe a few still hold out in Appalachia more than a century after they were officially declared extinct. But what is extinction? Is it a complete absence of a species, or the absence of a sustainable breeding population? There have been rare sightings over the years, and a few are hard to deny.

A friend in the DNR was called out one night to a report of a panther feeding on a sheep kill, and he captured it after anaesthetizing the beast with a dart gun. Isolated cases probably escaped from captivity or were deliberately released when they grew too large and wild to be managed. So, it is true that panthers haunt our forests, but mostly stalk our minds. People who live in and around these forests are reluctant to surrender that ultimate symbol of nature’s wildness, and I admit that even the slimmest chance of stumbling on pug marks in the snow brings spice to a walk in the woods.

Next Post: A Costly Thaw